The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, was imprisoned and tortured, both physically and emotionally, in Russia before making the move to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn on the 9th of Adar in 1940. In referencing his years of torment he once reflected, “Given the choice, I would’ve opted against having to endure what I had to endure. But in retrospect, I’m happy that I did and that the choice wasn’t mine to make.”
There are many aspects of this coronavirus pandemic that, given the choice, we certainly would have opted out of. But then again there are things we’ve learned about ourselves, individually and collectively, as well as about the world around us, that put us in a better position to do the things we were put here to do. From that perspective, like the Rebbe said, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
One of the more conspicuous adjustments to life in the era of the coronavirus, aside from being confined to our homes, is having our kids at home, attending classes from home instead of in school. If the kids weren’t home, quarantine wouldn’t be that much of a challenge.
I wanted to analyze, for a moment, the notion of distance learning and how it relates to the matter of having to daven without a minyan, which has undoubtedly created great contention within our cloistered community in having to balance our daily religious obligations while remaining safe during this pandemic.
Dovid HaMelech writes in Psalms, “Go, my sons, listen to me and I will teach you fear of Hashem.” The verbiage is somewhat peculiar — namely, the term “go” as opposed to the word “come,” which would connote an invitation from teacher to student to learn fear of Hashem in his teacher’s presence. One of the explanations for this is that the litmus test of true fear of Heaven can only be determined once the student has left the presence of his teacher.
Being left to our own devices, with the ability to allow all that we’ve studied and the awareness of G-d that it has imbued within us, is the only real yardstick for religious growth and development.
Now that our children are all at home with their tablets plugged in, we could perhaps appreciate the following analogy. Among the regulations from school in operating the tablets is to make sure the device is fully charged each morning to avoid disruption during class hours. However, as anyone who owns a smartphone or tablet of any sort knows, while it is important to maintain a healthy battery level, charging these devices for too long at a time can also cause it to overheat or negatively affect the battery over the long haul.
Similarly, a person who is always plugged in, which in this case refers to living life in the optimal sense in the settings that we have been most accustomed to, and in the presence of people under whose auspices we perform the best, hasn’t really been able to get a sense of how he, as an individual, has grown. That is precisely why King David chose the words: “Go, my sons, and I will teach you fear of Hashem,” implying that until one has gone on his or her own, and has tread upon unfamiliar terrain, he has not received any assurance of real growth.
The racket and level of desperation regarding having to daven in solitude these past six weeks or so, while it is meant on one level to publicly declare just how much davening with a minyan means to some people, on another level it speaks to a sense of personal distrust in one’s ability to maintain privately the level of seriousness that one portrays in a public setting. The Ba’al HaTanya, in his nusach for the morning prayers, makes a telling edit. The general prayer states: “L’olam yehei adam yerei Shamayim ba’seiser u’ba’galui” — a person should always strive to attain fear of heaven in the private and public eye. The Alter Rebbe omitted the word “u’bagalui,” in public, probably for the reason that genuine fear of Heaven cannot be measured in the public light.
A number of years ago, a rebbe of mine made the following observation: It was very normal when we were teenagers or twenty-somethings to fill our every moment of silence with music or some other activity such as checking emails or texts and the like. He observed that people were generally uncomfortable encountering themselves in a quiet moment. Even on Shabbos, when utilizing electronic devices is prohibited, people read books or newspapers, and, for that matter, even fill their void by learning a sefer of some sort. He said that it’s important to be with ourselves, deep in thought about the trajectory of our lives and whether or not the things we are doing are putting us on the right course of achieving the purpose for which we were put in this world. That was a lesson that resonated with me back then and has remained with me until today.
So while I can easily make sense of the great commotion about minyan davening by saying, “How great are Your people, Israel,” who can’t stand not being able to daven with a minyan, it doesn’t seem all that simple. There is no similarity between the insistence of people willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of davening with a minyan to the hundreds of thousands of Jews who sacrificed their lives through times of persecution to perform mitzvos that they knew would lead to their demise. The difference, of course, between the two is that in the latter case a Jew was willing to die to perform the will of G-d, whereas in the former, while the minyan-goer would like everyone to believe that he is willing to end his life to daven with a minyan, he is jeopardizing the lives of others and is not all that righteous.
These are just my own observations. But I urge anyone whose conscience continues to gnaw at him about the notion of davening alone on Shabbos, yom tov, or weekday to look carefully at himself in the mirror or to facilitate some quiet time at night to assess what it is that is really bothering him, what it is that he is truly uncomfortable with — the lack of a minyan or decades upon decades of self-deception? If it is the latter then I agree that is extremely disconcerting.
As people who believe in G-d’s Providence over every minute detail of our lives and this world, these events are meant to inspire deep introspection and to figure out what it is that G-d is saying to each of us individually. It’s easy to figure out what G-d is saying to other people, but we need to use these events as a springboard towards continued growth.
Parashas Emor opens with what has become a famous redundancy. The opening verse states: “Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say to them.” Rashi, whose style it is to address issues of this nature, highlights the words, “Emor … V’amarta” and comments “L’hazhir gedolim al ha’ketanim,” which means to caution the elders by way of the minors.
Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk explains that often when we want to point something out to people without being too forward in our delivery, we will address the children in the crowd while our words are directed at the elders among us. With our kids at home, attending classes virtually, at a distance, these are some of the messages that came to my mind about the things going on today.